December 25, 2022 - 8:00am

At this time of year, it’s customary for Christians to bemoan the secularisation of Christmas. I’m not worried, though. Christmas as a Christian festival has survived a lot worse than liberal modernity — and will continue to until the end of days. 

What I do worry about, however, is secular Christmas — by which I mainly mean the Anglo-American confection of the 19th and 20th centuries. It may be a worldly, wasteful rip-off, but at the same time it is one of the great achievements of western popular culture — a rare moment at which we stop doing everything else and do something together. 

At the darkest time of the year, secular Christmas shines a gaudy light that might just point the way to a deeper truth. It is the closest that millions of us come to a shared religious experience.

So why do I think it might be in trouble? Well, not because of the efforts of the politically correct. The attempt to replace ‘Merry Christmas’ with ‘Happy Holidays’ is thankfully doomed to failure. Rather, the real cause for concern is cultural not political. 

The fact is that secular Christmas is running out of inspiration. When, for instance, was the last great Christmas single released? And by ‘great’ I mean something you might hear in the supermarket and instantly recognise.

The golden age of the secular Christmas song belongs to 1940s and ’50s America, but the tradition goes on through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, some of the biggest seasonal hits date from the 1990s — as Mariah Carey’s accountant could tell you. But then, with the new century, something went terribly wrong. It’s tempting to blame Simon Cowell, whose stable of X Factor winners co-opted the UK Christmas charts from 2005 to 2014. But in reality, he was just filling a void. 

Much the same goes for the classic Christmas movie. Again, we have an American golden age — It’s a Wonderful Life etc. — and, again, a 20th century tradition that’s fizzling out in the 21st. Unless one counts In Bruges (2008) the last truly good Christmas films — About a Boy (2002), for instance, or The Polar Express (2004) — date from the early 2000s. Perhaps Love Actually (2003) put us off the genre but, whatever the cause, it’s been slim pickings ever since. 

An alternative explanation for the decline of Christmas in popular culture is the decline of popular culture more generally. This isn’t just a nostalgic knee-jerk reaction on my part: there’s hard evidence that new music and cinema has entered a decadent phase (see here and here for instance). In both industries, formula has triumphed over originality, the bland over the adventurous.     

Popular culture is ultimately disposable: if it doesn’t renew itself, then it must recycle instead. This Christmas will be much the same as last Christmas — Wham! and East 17 on an endless loop.

Of course, a lot of people still love it, so let’s not knock it. And yet there was a time when year-by-year we added something new to the secular feast. Today, we dine on leftovers alone. 

In the end we must place our faith in the eternal, not the ephemeral. Nevertheless, western popular culture is my culture — and I’m sad it’s fading away. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.